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Hollmann (L) and Kotis (R)
Greg Kotis (right), with Mark Hollmann

Greg Kotis - Political "to the extent that hand-wringing is political"

Philip Fisher interviews at Greg Kotis, writer of the Broadway show Urinetown and currently starring Off-Broadway in New York in his own show, Eat the Taste

The curly-haired Greg Kotis has a great sense of humour but at the time of our interview on the afternoon of the first Monday of 2005, he was a deeply worried man. He was about to have a run-through of Eat the Taste, having just returned from a doctor's appointment to repair a damaged neck.

His short-term solution was to place a giant frozen can of coffee on the left side of his neck and stare into space, apparently ignoring his interviewer. In fact, he is a warm, friendly man who, along with his musical collaborator, Mark Hollmann, has had the distinction of taking a $300 show from the New York International Fringe Festival on to Broadway, little more than two years later. To date, Urinetown is the only show that has ever made this transition.

The background to Urinetown, which was the first musical to open on Broadway after 9/11, is as unlikely as its title and indeed, its remarkable success story.

Kotis worked for some time with the Chicago-based Neo-Futurists Theater Company and it was while touring Europe with them that the seeds for Urinetown were sown. It cannot be common that the pay toilets of Paris have been the inspiration behind a Broadway show. However when they became part of Kotis' daily budget his life changed forever and his dystopian tale was born.

He speaks cogently of the experience of opening a show on Broadway in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. "Everybody expected there to be another attack. In truth we still anticipate that attack happening now. It was just that then it was particularly anticipated. I think the hardest thing was just to screw up the courage to do it. This applied to the actors and also to the audience who were going to what was regarded as a target. In some ways, the spirit of community was reminiscent of stories of London in the Blitz".

Kotis, who had worked together with Mark Hollmann since 1987, says that they knew each other very well by the time that they got to Urinetown. They had originally worked together as improvisers doing work on a similar basis to Mike Leigh in the United Kingdom. In a very egalitarian way, they would elect a director for amongst the company for each production. The pair wrote six or seven shows with their original company, Cardiff-Giant, in Chicago and then stayed in touch thereafter.

Hollmann moved to New York before Kotis but as soon as the latter arrived there in 1995, he sought out his musical partner. From then onwards, they used to meet every Sunday in a church sanctuary (where Hollmann played the organ every week) working on what was ultimately to become Urinetown. Even more surprisingly, according to Kotis the influence of the liturgical music can be heard in Hollmann's score for the show.

Kotis hopes that Urinetown has a future, possibly overseas. "London has been a great dream and any American playwright dreams of one day having their work represented there". This has to be a possibility as there have already been productions in Tokyo, Seoul, Berlin, the Philippines and Australia.

He was also happy to discuss his latest produced project, Eat the Taste, which is a kind of illegitimate child of Urinetown. This is the bizarre story of what happens when U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft decides that he would like his career after retirement from politics to be on the stage. Having seen Urinetown by accident, he is determined that, by fair means or foul, he will persuade Kotis and Hollmann to write a musical for him. From there, the fun begins.

Kotis also has two other musicals that he is currently working on. "One is a musical version of the Alec Guinness Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit. The other is a companion piece to Urinetown and is written in the same deliberately reckless spirit. It is a creation story that looks at the first life on Earth. It is very big and grand and primal". He has even more works in process, at earlier stages.

Greg Kotis' writing often takes on political issues but he denies that he is a deeply political writer. He says that he does not have the conviction or passion of a Tim Robbins or a Mike Nichols. He does go on to say that "to the extent that hand-wringing is political, I am political".

This is a fine hand-wringer with a great sense of humour. It would be nice to think that at some point Urinetown and possibly its successors will cross the Atlantic.

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©Peter Lathan 2005